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Canadian Press

Student chefs eat up chance to cook from scratch
April 21, 2010
By Judy Creighton

While some students chow down chicken nuggets, burgers and fries for lunch in the cafeteria at a Fergus high school, others in that same space enjoy locally sourced produce in soups, salads, wraps or quiches.

Most of the items are made by the students and served in the school’s alternative eatery, Cafe La Ruche, at Centre Wellington District High School.

Jess demonstrating how to make samosas - Cheryl Nadler, photographer

A renaissance is happening in many of the province’s secondary schools where innovative chef teachers are encouraging teenagers to shun unhealthy fast foods in favour of meals made from scratch. Most are eating it up.

Jesse Wallace is a good example. The 15-year-old entered the culinary program offered at the school last year and now he’s even cooking meals for his parents and siblings.

“My brother and I go to the farmers market to buy fresh, local ingredients and I can bake biscotti and homemade cinnamon buns,” he says with unbridled enthusiasm.

The firebrand behind this particular school’s hospitality and tourism program is its head chef instructor, Chris Jess, 36. Along with Chef, Nicole DeBeyer, these two committed teachers are working as a team to deliver an amazing program.

Jess apprenticed with several chefs in Alberta and B.C. and gained additional education at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. Jess then attended Brock University in St. Catharines to earn his teacher’s degree. Jess says the new culinary initiative aimed at high-school students must not be regarded as just a passing trend.

He has imposed “a slew of additional focuses that are important in any socially and environmentally conscious, food-based curriculum.”

Kelsey and Olivia making a chutney - Cheryl Nadler, photographer

Jess is following in the footsteps of another successful program run by Paul Finkelstein at Northwestern High School in Stratford. More than six years ago, the chef founded the Screaming Avocado Cafe, a culinary arts restaurant where students from Grades 10 to 12 learn to prepare, cook and serve locally grown meals. Last September Jess launched a course on preserving the harvest.

“Starting with the purchase of local, bulk produce from farmers in the mainly rural area of the high school the students learned that food acquired at this time of year, when the bounty is high, is less expensive and, if preserved correctly, better tasting by far than anything bought in a grocery store,” he explains.

Together, he and his 300 students run a catering company, Cater Wellington, and a storefront called The Pantry.

“The students are able to see their work as being both monetarily and nutritionally valuable,” says Jess.

“The Pantry has become not only a store where we sell our preserves, such as jams, soups, pickles and compotes, but also a source for dairy products such as fresh butter, yogurts, cheeses and ice cream all made at the school.”

He has instigated a partnership with local organic farmer David Fletcher.

“I have actually had some of my students apply for summer internships to learn more about farming,” says Jess.

“As agriculture is depressed right now I am thankful to have many young farmer friends and I want them to stay with me because I need them as role models.”

Fergus Food School

•In its third year, the school now houses a cafe/pantry as well as kitchen classrooms.

•Students in Grades 9 to 12 learn about local and seasonal foods and how to preserve them and venture out to local farms and forests to forage fiddleheads and ramps.

•The food school has also set up a partnership with a local organic farm which will introduce interested students to farming as a career.

Source: The Food School,

The Canadian Press

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